Crews set up Denali Base Camp

2010 Denali base camp. (NPS Photo/Kent Miller)

2010 Denali base camp. (NPS Photo/Kent Miller)

Thursday marks the unofficial beginning of climbing season on Denali, when base camp gets set up for the thousand-plus climbers that will make an attempt to summit North America’s highest peak.

For a few months each year, one of the busiest “airports” in Alaska isn’t technically an airport at all.  It’s Denali base camp on the Kahiltna Glacier.  The vast majority of climbers fly in from Talkeetna to the camp at just over 7,000 feet to start their trek.  On arrival, climbers are met by base camp manager Lisa Roderick.  She says her job on the mountain involves wearing multiple hats.  One of her regular tasks is calling the air services in town with current weather conditions in the Alaska Range.

“They love having a person up there that can tell them what the ever-changing conditions are doing.  As climbers fly in, I help unload the planes and just facilitate getting the planes moving and keeping things running smooth.  As the climbers are done climbing the mountain, I call there air service and get their flight out…”

Lisa Roderick doesn’t work for the National Park Service.  Instead, she works for the air services in Talkeetna whose job it is to ferry climbers back and forth to Denali.  She keeps cards for each climbing group that tells who they are, what air service they flew in with, and what languages they speak.  Many of those cards do not list “English,” so Lisa sometimes has to improvise her communication.

“There’s a lot of sign language with some of the climbers who don’t speak English.  It just works out, you point to an airplane and say, ‘Take your stuff over there.’  People want to get home so bad that they’re packed and ready and waiting for their plane ninety-percent of the time, so I don’t have to do too much.”

On Wednesday, Lisa Roderick was busy arranging gear and consulting her checklist.  Unlike climbers, whose supplies are centered around getting up and down the mountain, her gear involves communications equipment and long-term shelter, which comes with a lot of baggage.

“Basically, it’s just making sure I have all the equipment I need up there.  I have solar panels that charge four marine batteries, so [I] make sure I have all the equipment in tip-top shape.  I have a bunch of radios that I use up there–just putting everything into a big pile to be loaded into airplanes for tomorrow.”

While some climbers have begun their treks already, twelve as of Wednesday, most won’t arrive until mid-May or later.  The heart of climbing season in May and June is when base camp earns the nickname, “Kahiltna International Airport.”  For nearly all of those climbers, one of the first and last faces they see on their Denali expedition will be Lisa Roderick’s.

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